Football and politics. What a perfect match.
In the past two weeks the Qatari crisis took the world by storm, and around the world, the news was welcomed in great surprise. But for those following Middle Eastern football, the crisis was, in a way, quite predictable.
It began with the sagas involving Saudi Al-Hilal and Iranian Khuzestan in Doha, and Al-Ahli Jeddah who terminated their sponsorship contract with Qatar Airways, but it did not stop there.
The Yemeni football association also joined in. Yemen's national team had been playing their "home" games in Qatar due to the ongoing civil war in their own country (which Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar are all involved at), but the final whistle appears to have been blown on that deal as the Gulf blockade develops, and The Reds will no longer host matches in Doha.
The following day, organizers of the planned 2017 Gulf Cup tournament - due to take place in Qatar at the end of December - began discussing whether to replace Qatar with the UAE as hosts. The tournament was expected to be the first rehearsal for the Qataris ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
This sparked a global social and conventional media discussion about whether Qatar's main goal - the 2022 World Cup - may be cancelled, postponed or moved. FIFA is yet to publish a serious comment on the matter.
And it did not stop there. Rumors that the UAE and Saudi Arabia banned FC Barcelona shirts with Qatari sponsors (Qatar Airways & Qatar Foundation) spread fast across the internet, but all reports seem to be bogus.
By June 11, no fine, nor any conviction was listed in either country over FCB shirts. Moreover, according to BabaGol’s sources in the UAE, the 2016/17 shirts of the Spanish giants are being still sold in Dubai shops.
The latest update regarding the footballing aspect of the crisis also came from the UAE.
In addition, the official Twitter of the UAEFA stated that it has requested its referees at their match against Thailand to be changed, as they were all Qataris. Eventually FIFA & AFC agreed, and the Qatari staff were replaced with Singaporean officials.
As any huge story from the region, the Qatari crisis produced a massive amount of false news and speculations, and many of it was related to football. At one point, it wasn't clear whether any reports were genuine, or simply meant to blur reality.
One thing is sure, though - at this point - the Qatari crisis is fully injected to the region's football scene. Football has been exploited as comfortable field to make much deeper and wider statements by the countries involved.
Tuesday night saw the Qataris gain a 3-2 win against South Korea – one of the strongest teams in Asia. On warmup the players wore a t-shirt with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Hasan al-Haydos even waved the shirt with Emir's face after scoring the first goal of the match.
This gesture clarified what a rough week this group of players, country and rulers, had. Football and politics together on the pitch, in its purest way.
Like famous George Orwell once stated, “Football is a war minus the shooting”. In the past weeks, Middle Eastern football is simply living this definition.